At Last Some Answers for Struggling Writers

I have finally discovered a “how to write” book that makes sense. (As it turns out, the book was there all along, but it took a friend’s advice to steer me to it.) Dorothea Brande’s 1934 work, Becoming a Writer (Penguin Putnam) tackles the fundamental challenges confronted by struggling writers. She offers specific advice on a range of writing topics like: what to do when you get up in the morning, how to spend your free time, what kind of people to avoid, and how to handle caffeine addiction. And yes, she explains, these are writing topics.

Brande challenges would-be writers to “shit or get off the pot,” as my father would say, suggesting that we make writing appointments with ourselves and, if we fail to meet them, just give it up. I tell my students that showing up is fundamental, but have never applied this strict discipline to my own writing schedule.

Brande uses the “magniloquent” term “genius,” to describe the source of a writer’s inspiration. Then she argues that we all have it. We just don’t know how to use it. “No human being is so poor as to have no trace of genius; none so great that he comes within infinity of using his own inheritance to the full.” (p. 157). She demystifies the muse with specific advice on harnessing inspiration when we need it.

Then Brande cautions that we are a bunch of word-addicts and if we don’t get away from them we risk losing track of our own voices. She recommends leisure activities that have “rhythm, monotony, and silence.” She says writers must be free of words both to tap into the unconscious sources of inspiration and to avoid contaminating our own styles. No wonder my friend Beatrice Hale is so productive – when not writing, she’s walking or gardening.

Like John Gardner (On Becoming a Novelist), Brande advises that we husband our words carefully. Gardner prohibits his writing students from talking about their projects. Brande does the same, suggesting that once the words have escaped, the urge to write will dissipate. This reminds me of Lynley Hood’s suggestion (Sylvia!) that Sylvia Ashton-Warner wrote fiction to create an acceptable escape from an unacceptable reality. Had she accessed an alternate escape route (like chatting in a coffee shop, emailing a friend, or blogging) the world of literature would be diminished.

Brande says nothing the business or the craft of writing. She gives the would-be writer something far more important: permission — permission to be silent; permission to be alone; permission to be eccentric; and, ultimately, permission to be genius.


“Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter, open up a vein and bleed it out drop by drop.”
— Sportswriter, Red Smith

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